The very phrase “modern Middle East” conjures images of military conflict, terrorism, sectarianism, and oil, yet most observers tend to separate the history of Western oil consumption from Middle Eastern wars or dismiss the whole business as wars for oil. This essay argues that the claims staked by Western oil companies to the entire subterranean sphere involved a configuration of sovereignty in which the states in question were alienated from the resources of value. This hollow form of sovereignty had corollaries on the territorial level where oil companies promoted sectarianism and its militarization. On this count, I modify Timothy Mitchell's thesis in Carbon Democracy that the militarization of the Middle East was a largely American solution to lost profits following the nationalization of oil by producing countries (insofar as lost oil profits were recuperated through weapons sales), arguing instead that militarization was a strategy simultaneous with the development of oil concessions. Subsequent nationalization of the concessions involved the absorption of ethnic competition and militarized space into the very fabric of the nation-state. In the current embattled context, a nascent form of resource sovereignty operates in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Kurdistan Regional Government funds the Peshmerga with proceeds from its independent oil sales. Although a successful, long-term outcome of resource sovereignty depends on the dissolution of another colonial holdover, namely, claims based on ethnicity, the Kurdish restructuring of oil ownership marks the first step in dissolving the enduring legacies of colonial administration, authoritarian governments, and systematic militarization.

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